Lucknow: “I am a friend of Coronavirus. I will not stay home and I do not care for society,” read the placard in Hindi. In the photograph tweeted by the official handle of Meerut Police on 23 March, 2020, 40-year-old Mohammad Alim is sitting on his bike, holding the placard. Three minor children and a woman are clearly visible in the picture.
The previous day when Prime Minister Narendra Modi had called for a voluntary ‘janta curfew’, a fight had broken out amongst the children of the neighbourhood, said Alim, a mosque-worker. The parents came out, and so did the widow, whose three children in the photograph were apparently involved in the fight.
When the police arrived, they first tried to break up the fight and then asked Alim to bring the three kids and their mother to the Ganganagar police station. “On reaching the police station, I was handed the pamphlet and my picture was clicked,” Alim alleged.
The tweet, in which the offices of the Prime Minister as well as the Home Minister have been tagged, has been retweeted over 7,000 times with over 15,000 ‘likes’. Amongst the 1,000 comments visible are those that criticise the police for publishing the photographs of minors, but also abusive comments.
On 22 March, 2020, the day of a voluntary lockdown, Meerut Police published as many as 10 photographs of alleged ‘violators’, all holding shaming placards like the one held by Alim.
As India is now under an additional 21-day lockdown to tackle coronavirus, the police have been asked to prevent people from venturing out, except for reasons like getting groceries and medicines. The ‘janta curfew’ announced by the Prime Minister on 22 March, however, was supposed to be voluntary.
But the police had their own ideas for implementation.
Meerut Police Superintendent of Police (SP) for City Range Akhilesh Narayan Singh, who achieved notoriety for asking people to go to Pakistan during a violent anti-CAA protest, told Article 14 that the ‘shaming tactic’ was only a warning by the police to keep people at home.
He declined to comment further while a question to the Senior SP on this issue went unanswered.
Social Shaming By UP Police Is Not New
The taking of photographs without the consent of the person being photographed is not per se illegal, according to Section 49 of the CrPC. However, it clarifies, that the use of force to compel a person to stand up for being photographed would need statutory authority.
Unabashed, the Meerut police tweeted a news report that claimed over 150 people were photographed and their pictures sent to their families for violating the ‘voluntary’ janta lockdown.
This pattern of social shaming is not unique to Meerut Police and was replicated by different district police including Bareilly, reported news agency Reuters. A police officer at the Malhaur police outpost in Lucknow confirmed that violators of the lockdown were made to do sit-ups and squats.
Social shaming as a tactic is not new to UP Police. Earlier in March, the Lucknow administration and police put up public hoardings of people who had been accused of rioting during the anti-CAA protest that erupted in Uttar Pradesh on 19 December 2019.
The Allahabad High Court intervened and asked the state government to remove the hoarding. Undeterred, the government has challenged the order in the Supreme Court where the matter is still to be resolved and also brought in an ordinance and tribunal to shame and recover the costs of public property damaged during the protest.
It’s Illegal: Ex-DGP
Former Uttar Pradesh Police’s Director-General Vikram Singh was of the opinion that such shaming cannot be done legally.
“Please go through the Prisoners Act. Photography cannot be done at will unless it’s a riot-like situation where it is grouped with video as per the fact that you have gone to capture the scene of rioting. Particular photography or forcing a person to hold such a placard is uncalled for at the moment of deepest crisis, which is not limited just to India but across the globe. This knee-jerk [reaction] has never served any purpose earlier and this tokenism can be counter productive especially at a time when you have to give an impression that you are a friend, philosopher and guide,” he said.
He added, “I would suggest the police leadership intervene and disallow such action. I understand the police are less in number, but this is the time to test the steel in you and not allow this kind of irresponsible action again.”
Karan Seth, the co-founder of Volunteers Collective, a volunteer organisation, said: “The Meerut police are following the UP govt model of Goonda Raj in the name of governance.”
He mentioned that there are no laws prescribing the shaming of the general public like this and stated that it’s a blatant and gross invasion of privacy laws and judgements passed by the Supreme Court.
However, the UP govt when pulled up by the Supreme Court has invented its own laws and ordinances, Seth said. “These laws only apply to the poorest of people and the powerful are exempt from such shaming.”
Earlier, a police constable in Badaun was removed from duty and a probe was initiated against him after he allegedly made five labourers squat and hop on the road while they were walking back to their homes amid the lockdown.
A video of the incident, which appears to have been shot by a passer-by and has since gone viral, shows five labourers with backpacks squatting and hopping under the direction of a policeman who has two sticks in his hands.
On March 25, the Kerala High Court passed a judgement saying that personal liberty guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution should not be infringed upon, unless an arrest is inevitable.
Recently, Bharatiya Janata Party’s Ghaziabad MLA, Nand Kishor Gujjar, announced a reward of Rs 5,100 for each policeman who shoots down the lockdown violators. Similarly, Telangana Chief Minister, K Chandrashekar Rao, had also warned that if the violations of the lockdown continue, he will have to issue shoot-at-sight orders.
Over the past few days, the Meerut Police seemed to be working towards rebranding their image. Their tweets since 25 March show police officials distributing food and helping citizens in need.
(Saurabh Sharma is an independent journalist based in Lucknow and a member of 101Reporters.com.)
Previously on Article 14: